Tom McClintock

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Time for a Second Look at Nuclear Power
Ideological opposition has blocked nuclear power

By Tom McClintock


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The newspaper's front page contained one of those jigsaws of incongruity that one comes to expect these days in California. One article reported that the California Independent System Operator had just declared the latest in a long series of Stage Two electricity shortages, while another reported on workers merrily dismantling the Rancho Seco nuclear electricity generating plant near Sacramento.

Those two stories form the bookends of this state's energy crisis. We need 15,000 megawatts of additional generating capacity to meet immediate demand, produce a sufficient surplus to force prices down, and to accommodate unexpected breakdowns of the state's aging fleet of generators. And we can't get there without a major commitment to nuclear energy.

California has only two nuclear power plants left from the era when California's leaders were committed to cheap, clean and abundant electricity. Those two plants alone still produce 16 percent of the state's electricity at the cost of roughly 3-cents per kilowatt hour - a fraction of the 16-cents it now costs to produce the same electricity with a natural gas-fired plant.

The state of Vermont gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. France gets 76 percent. And yet, under current law, a nuclear power plant application cannot even be considered in California. How are we to meet the demands for cheap, clean and abundant electricity without it?

California has overrun its natural gas supply, natural gas prices have skyrocketed and air regulators routinely require large plants to pay as much as $4.8 million per day for air pollution permits. And yet, gas fired plants are the only applications currently being considered. "Renewables" like solar power are often touted as the energy supply of the future, but their power is neither cheap nor abundant. To replace the daily output of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant with photovoltaic cells, for example, would cost $66 billion (the price of 22 similar-sized nuclear plants today) and require 36 square miles of solid solar panels.

Coal is cheap - about the same cost as nuclear power per kilowatt-hour - but is the dirtiest form of energy available. If clean, cheap and abundant power is the question, the only readily available answers are hydroelectric and nuclear.

Four thousand megawatts of hydroelectric power could be made available in the next five years by completing the Auburn Dam, increasing the capacity of the Shasta Dam and upgrading a variety of existing facilities. But hydroelectricity becomes unreliable in droughts, and still doesn't bring us close to the 15,000 megawatts that California needs.

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Which brings us back to the merry vandals at Rancho Seco, and ultimately to the ideological opposition that has blocked nuclear power development in California for 25 years.

During that period, nuclear technology has taken quantum leaps that have dramatically decreased costs and increased safety and reliability. The arguments of nuclear opponents have simply been eclipsed by a quarter century of solid technological advances.

Today, nuclear power can boast the safest operating record of any competitive power source in the history of the world. Modern nuclear plants operate for less than 2-cents per kilowatt-hour; 3-cents when construction and decommissioning costs are factored in. At that rate, the average home electricity bill would be $18 per month.

Nuclear power completely eliminates the chronic air pollution associated with electricity generation. In 1999, California's two nuclear plants prevented the release of 181,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 7.7 million metric tons of carbon particulates that would have been produced by fossil fuel plants. And with production reactors in use around the world, the fuel is inexhaustible.

Nuclear plants create a fraction of the waste of conventional power plants. An ideal waste depository exists at Yucca Mountain, Nevada and recycling of nuclear waste - a common practice around the world but not in the United States - would reduce that fraction to a fraction.

California's public officials will hear none of this, of course. After all, sky-high prices for electricity, ubiquitous power blackouts, dirty air, and yet another exodus of business away from California are a small price for them to pay to avoid the wrath of California's anti-nuclear zealots. But is it a price the rest of us should pay?

Senator McClintock represents the 19th State Senate District in the California Legislature. His website address is He can be reached at

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Tom McClintock, 2001, All rights reserved.

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